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[Morten Tønnessen] The Statistician's Guide to Utopia: The Future of Growth

[Morten Tønnessen] The Statistician's Guide to Utopia: The Future of Growth

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Published by Morten Tønnessen
In this article I paint a concise portrait of world economic and population history. Directions of inquiry are offered to three groups: Those who want to maintain the growth economy for as long as possible; those who want world population to stay, in the long run, at a level comparable to that of today; and those who want to minimize environmental pressure. From Trames no. 2, 2008, pgs. 115-126.
In this article I paint a concise portrait of world economic and population history. Directions of inquiry are offered to three groups: Those who want to maintain the growth economy for as long as possible; those who want world population to stay, in the long run, at a level comparable to that of today; and those who want to minimize environmental pressure. From Trames no. 2, 2008, pgs. 115-126.

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Published by: Morten Tønnessen on Jun 12, 2008
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TRAMES, 2008,
12
(
62/57
), 2, 115–126
THE STATISTICIAN’S GUIDE TO UTOPIA:THE FUTURE OF GROWTH
Morten Tønnessen
University of Tartu
Abstract.
In this article I paint a concise portrait of world economic and populationhistory. Key factors include the world population and Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Therole of technology in relation to the environmental impact of economic activity isrepresented by an
 Environmental Efficiency Factor 
(EEF). It is asserted that any modernpolitical theory aspiring to comprehensiveness should deal with four subject matters: Thelegitimate level of human interference with the rest of nature; the level of the humanpopulation; the nature and extent of the economy and technology. Past GDP growth ratescombined with UN population projections result in a number of scenarios of future realGDP to the year 2300. In the course of inquiry, three measures of all time economicactivity are introduced:
 All time world GDP per capita
,
accumulated world GDP
and the
annual growth rate of accumulated world GDP
. In conclusion, I describe under whatcircumstances it is conceivable that the growth economy can persist for at least 300 moreyears. Directions of inquiry are offered to three groups: Those who want to maintain thegrowth economy for as long as possible; those who want world population to stay, in thelong run, at a level comparable to that of today; and those who want to minimizeenvironmental pressure.
DOI:
10.3176/tr.2008.2.01
Keywords:
economic growth, environment, future studies, politics, population,technology, Utopia
1. Introduction
If we put the causes of the ecological crisis on a formula, the outcome wouldprobably be something in the line of this:Environmental pressure = (World population) * (Consumption/person) * xwhere ‘x’ represents our consumption’s degree of environmental impact. Now,suppose that we can replace ‘(Consumption/person)’ with Gross Domestic Product
 
 Morten Tønnessen
116
(GDP)
1
per capita, and reshape ‘x’ as an
 Environmental Efficiency Factor 
(EEF).The equation would then appear like this:Environmental pressure = (World population) * (GDP per capita) * EEF
2
 During the last century, population increased by a factor of four, and GDP percapita at least by a factor of five (cf. Tables 1 and 2). World GDP, in result,increased by a factor of at least twenty. Clearly, any descriptive explanation of therise of the ecological crisis has to take these material facts into account. But whatare the long-term prospects of the growth economy? If you ask a contemporaryeconomist, chances are (s)he will maintain that the scope of any reliable economicprediction must be limited to the very near future. As any observant reader of economic news will know, the level of economic growth is at times hard to predicteven a year in advance. And still, your question wouldn’t be quite as silly as itmight sound. After all, how can we possibly deal with the so-called environmentalproblems, if we know nothing at all about the future state of the economy?Decades after the advent of a vocabulary of environmental problems, it isevident that the effect of environmentally friendly advances in technology andlifestyle are in many fields eaten up by growth in the volume of the economy.Moreover, particular problems are often solved through means by which new,often unanticipated kinds of problems arise. There is no such thing as a problem-free technology. Since 1973, the size of the world economy has more than doubled(cf. Table 3). For how long can we expect improvements in terms of what I callthe Environmental Efficiency Factor to go on?What most economists tend to neglect is that the growth economy, consideredas a historical phenomenon, has a beginning, and, in the time scale of civilizations,is likely one day to come to an end. While eternal growth might in theory be adefendable position, it definitely calls for articulated justification. All too often itis simply taken for granted that our economic system is representative of 
a futurewithout end 
.If there is one assertion mainstream economists seem to find particularlyridiculous, it is this: That growth is no longer an option. And indeed, it would beridiculous to make such an assertion
 
(for one example, see Goldsmith 2001). Ingeneral, assertions of this kind seem to originate from two environmentalistfallacies. First, the mistaken view that we are running out of resources. Ineconomic terms, however, what can be used as a resource is not given
a priori
,rather, it’s a matter of technology. In economic history, there is a clear tendencythat more and more ‘parts’ of the natural environment are made use of and thustransformed into resources. Second, the mistaken view that environmental
1
Gross Domestic Product is a standard measure of all the economic activity that takes place withina country during a year. Estimates of GDP are normally presented in nominal figures, calculatedat current prices and exchange rates. In this article GDP is to be understood as real GDP, whichis calculated at fixed prices. This enables us to use GDP as a tool in historical comparisons.
2
If we rearrange this equation, we see that the Environmental Efficiency Factor is defined asEEF = (Environmental pressure)/(world GDP).
 
The future of growth
117
problems will somehow make further growth too costly. There is not much solidevidence supporting this view. Sure, environmental costs change price formation,thus redirecting investments. But the more fundamental economic mechanisms,such as the drive for growth in the economy, are generally left intact. There are nosigns that the era of the growth economy is about to end anytime soon. The end of the growth economy is not a matter of faith. It is a matter of choice. Accordingly,unless our worldviews and values change profoundly, the depletion of the naturalenvironment is likely to deepen and broaden in scope for a long time still.
2. Matters of scale
There are at least four subject matters that any political theory aspiring tocomprehensiveness should deal with, all of which are encompassed in the afore-mentioned equation:the legitimate level of human interference with the rest of naturethe level of the human populationthe nature and extent of the economy
3
 – technologyThese are all matters of scale. The significance of scale should be obvious.What is perfectly legitimate behavior at a certain population level can havedisastrous consequences when carried out by ten or a hundred times as many. Ingeneral, the ecological impact of a particular pattern of behavior lies just as muchin the scale of actions as in the type of behavior itself.As initially stated by Arne Næss (1989:105–106) more than 30 years ago, itremains the case that “among activists within the ecological movement, peoplehave been so fed up with unecological policies that the term ‘economics’ itself hasbecome a kind of nasty word” – “nothing can be expected, think activists, from astudy of economics – the economists are to be fought”. As Næss notes, it “ishighly destructive to the deep ecology movement that supporters are silencedbecause they cannot stand up in public discussions with people who are wellacquainted with economics.”
4
As I attempt to demonstrate in this article, it makesgood sense to talk about long-term scenarios in statistical terms.
3
Basic issues of importance to the ecological crisis include traditionally anthropocentric notionssuch as
 property
and
territory
. Cf. Tønnessen 2003:296.
4
Deep ecology, as advocated by Arne Næss, can be summarized by means of the deep ecologyplatform. Cf. Tønnessen 2003, which is mainly a Uexküllian interpretation of the deep ecologyplatform – the term ‘Uexküllian’ here referring to the Umwelt theory and theory of meaning of the Estonian-German biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864–1944). One of the versions of theplatform appears in Næss 1993:197. As for matters of population and economy, the deep ecologyplatform states that “[t]he flourishing of non-human life requires a smaller human population”;that basic economic, technological, and ideological structures must be changed, and that the“resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present”. “The ideological change”,according to Næss, “will be mainly that of appreciating life quality rather than adhering to anincreasingly higher standard of living”.

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